The 21st century has witnessed a global nutrition transition where, at the expense of traditional diets, people increasingly consume cheap ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks.
Ultra-processed products are more commonly known as junk food, fast foods, or packaged or ready-to-eat foods. These foods and beverages are usually high in sugars, salts and/or saturated fats and have low or no nutritional value. They are mass produced, involve several manufacturing steps and contain additives like artificial colors and flavors. Unfortunately, these products are widespread in most societies and are highly marketed, despite being increasingly associated with poor health outcomes.
A diet high in ultra-processed foods is an unhealthy diet. Robust evidence links their consumption to serious health harms such as increased overweight and obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers.
Vital Strategies works closely with partners in Barbados, Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica and South Africa. We also support work in other countries including Ethiopia and the Philippines. Our work helps achieve healthy food policy goals through focused audience research, strategic communication and evaluation.
Technical Intervention Package
Vital Strategies supports partners to research and develop strategic responses to policy proposals. We help partners drive public and policymaker support for high-impact policies aimed at creating a healthier food environment.
Taxation on Sugary Drinks and Junk Food
Offers a win-win approach for governments:
• Taxes increase government revenue that can be used for public health.
• Taxes help reduce consumption and improve health, particularly among lower-income consumers—many of whom bear a disproportionate burden of diet-related noncommunicable disease rates worldwide.
Clear Front-of-Package Nutrient Labeling
Empowers consumers to make informed and healthier choices:
• Simple nutrient labels that identify unhealthy products are an effective way to discourage consumption of ultra-processed products.
• Clear front-of-package nutrient labels minimize consumers’ effort and time in making purchasing decisions. They can increase a customer’s intention to purchase healthier products or decrease the intention to purchase unhealthy products.
• Evidence shows that front-of-package nutrient warning labels are the strongest labeling approach in use, particularly for the goal of reducing consumption of ultra-processed foods and drinks.
Vital Strategies and the University of North Carolina’s Global Food Research Program produced a guidebook, What’s in Our Food? A guide to introducing effective front-of-package nutrient labels, to assist countries in taking up this cost-effective, high-impact strategy to combat diet-related noncommunicable diseases.
Our recently published commentary in BMJ Global Health, ‘Warning: ultra-processed’ — A call for warnings on foods that aren’t really foods, provides insights on the importance of how best to communicate with the public to build support for regulating ultra-processed foods.
Restrictions on Marketing Unhealthy Food
Protects children from exposure to marketing of unhealthy food and beverages:
• Children are highly receptive, cannot recognize advertising intent, and are extremely vulnerable to food marketing.
• Marketing regulations can prohibit advertising targeting children in the media and online, limit or ban product giveaways, restrict sponsorship of sports or events, or ban product placement of unhealthy foods and beverages in children’s movies.
Promoting Healthy Food Policies in the Public Sector, Especially in Schools
Provides a healthy food environment:
• Unhealthy food environments in schools can prevent children from making good eating decisions and learning healthy food habits.
• Strong policies that restrict access to unhealthy food, ban marketing and include standards for healthier meals increase healthy food intake while reducing sugar, saturated fat and sodium consumption across children’s entire diet.
Healthy Food Policy Fellowship
• To guide national policies and further expand evidence, Vital Strategies awards Healthy Food Policy Fellowships to support future leaders and build research and legal capacity in focus countries.
• Successful applicants are awarded a multiple-year fellowship for the duration of their Ph.D. program (up to five years) to support their studies at top universities in their home country or abroad.
Accomplishments we’ve supported
In Brazil, a rapid transition from traditional diets to those high in ultra-processed foods and beverages has led to a jump in obesity rates. In October 2020, the Brazil Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA) approved front-of-package warning labels. Vital Strategies has worked with partners in Brazil over several years to develop the successful communication campaigns to support this policy. Learn more.
The Brazilian Institute for Consumer Protection (IDEC) and Vital Strategies released a case study on the communication campaign calling for the implementation of accurate warning labels. The case study is a model for other countries aiming to gain public support for front-of-package labels.
We have also produced campaigns with partners to gather support for tax increase, starting with a focus on sugary drinks. Following the campaign, 50% of the population supported a tax on sugary drinks.
In Jamaica, we have helped to develop campaigns highlighting the health harms of sugary drinks to build support for government action, including a sugary drinks tax, to reduce consumption. Research from The Heart Foundation of Jamaica and Vital Strategies published in the journal Nutrients in July 2022 showed the mass media campaigns increased Jamaicans’ knowledge about the dangers of sugary drinks and over half (> 55%) supported a tax on sugary drinks. Learn more.
We have provided guidance ahead of local partners’ implementation of
evidence-informed front-of-package labeling mass media campaigns directly calling for the octagonal warning labels on unhealthy packaged foods. These campaigns have achieved an increase in public knowledge of the harms of unhealthy food and beverages and increased community support for octagonal warning labels on unhealthy foods and beverages.
In Colombia, multiple mass media campaigns have built public support for increasing taxes on sugary drinks and implementing clear warning labels on food and drink packaging.
In November 2022, Colombia’s Congress voted to impose taxes on ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks. In addition, a new resolution from the Ministry of Health was issued to enforce an octagonal front-of-package warning regulation. Foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fat, as well as any foods with artificial sweeteners, will have clear warning labels when these policies go into effect in late 2023.
South Africa was the first country in Africa to pass a tax on sugary drinks. Vital Strategies provided South African partners with strategic, technical and capacity-building support to implement three national mass media campaigns highlighting the health harms of sugary drinks consumption. The tax, at approximately 11% of the purchase price, was implemented in April 2018.
In addition, we supported local partners to implement a mass media campaign urging the government to introduce front-of-package warning labels on ultra-processed packaged food. We also assisted partners in creating the optimal warning label design for the South African context and worked with them to develop the research protocol to test its efficacy. After four years of persistent campaigning, new regulations have been published by the National Department of Health for public comment. The regulations propose the mandatory use of black triangle warnings on packaged foods high in sugar, salt and saturated fat and those that contain artificial sweeteners.
We continue to advise partners in their efforts to monitor and influence government to strengthen the health promotion levy (sugary drinks tax) by increasing it to 20% and including fruit juices. Learn more.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Barbados advocated for an increase in excise taxes on sweetened beverages to 20%, which was implemented on April 1, 2022. A series of mass media campaigns, supported by Vital Strategies, encouraged policymakers to increase the tax and urged the public to support a comprehensive school nutrition policy, including a ban on unhealthy foods and beverages in schools.
In Mexico, we worked in tandem with partners to develop mass media campaigns that were instrumental in the introduction of a 10% tax on sugary drinks in 2013. Evaluation has shown that after the tax was implemented there was a significant reduction in sugary drink purchases, increases in water purchases and no change in total employment.